“You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?” the English tabloid journalist hurled at the unprotected head of his CNN talk show guest Larry Pratt.
The subject was gun control, not exactly a subject known to encourage equanimity and proper deportment on the nation’s airwaves or social media. The discussion occurred right after the now all-too-familiar gun horrors at the Sandy Hook elementary school.
The host was Piers Morgan, whose imminent departure from CNN has been discussed by Morgan himself as, in part, a byproduct of his pure, unadorned rudeness.
Morgan was, with some heat, pointing out how often the AR-15 assault rifle was a weapon of choice among mass murderers. His guest was indeed making an absurd argument at a decidedly inopportune time. “People like you,” Pratt told the savagely argumentative English talk show host “have been able to put laws on the books that prevent people from defending themselves.” Unavoidably, then, he’d defended gun rights by, in effect, conjuring up the image of an elementary school as a war zone sprayed by bullets from all over the place.
“What a ridiculous argument,” opined Morgan, very much going at his “guest.” In exchange, his American gun-rights advocate was – simply as a matter of behavioral style – weirdly successful in painting himself to be the polite and reasonable one amid the violent clash of views.
That’s what remains so fascinating. I couldn’t possibly be more on Morgan’s side in what absurdly passed for “debate” in some eyes. But if you could somehow disengage the horrific and tragic news that occasioned the “discussion” – and the point being made – from the STYLE of the combatants, it was a fascinating conflict of trans-Atlantic manners.
Pratt knew that if he had any chance of scoring any gun rights points at all with CNN viewers, he had to keep his cool. The Brit, on the other hand, was brought up in a media world where savage rudeness at the proper time is considered something of an art. The apothegm “a gentleman is never rude unintentionally” has been variously attributed to Samuel Johnson and Lord Chesterfield, but either way it couldn’t be more British and the keyword is “unintentionally.” A “gentleman” by implication, may sometimes be very rude indeed, but he has to be absolutely sure it’s the appropriate time.
And what’s appropriate on London TV is not necessarily so in America.
I may be one of the few people in America who is going to miss Piers Morgan on CNN as a mid-evening alternative. His ratings, as the old showbiz agents might have said, in their everyday vernacular Yiddish, were “bupkes.” That’s why CNN is ridding themselves of their one-time vaunted Larry King replacement.
But he sometimes had a kind of rude hauteur that was rare in American TV blather. The fact is that the Brits often seem rather good at rudeness. We Americans are vastly less so. We’re raised differently. When, say, Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera get into it hot and heavy and call each other names, it just seems ugly and phony showbiz – thoroughly unwatchable to me. Strictly speaking, it’s all unrestrained venting and anger for ratings sake, but there seems to be a huge stylistic difference between arrogant hauteur and fatuous smirking.
I can’t lie here. I seldom watched Morgan. I usually prefer to watch other things. But I was oddly happy he was there, just in case. That won’t be true very much longer.
I never watched Alec Baldwin’s micro-flash hallucination of a talk show on MSNBC either one night a week, but I was sorry that at least, the IDEA of the show didn’t survive a bit longer.
Its blind-sided euthanasia by MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin is one of the things that has produced one of the more astonishing documents of our time – Baldwin’s cover rant in New York Magazine in which he tells us he’s giving up his version of public life in Manhattan for the cloistered, gated community insularity of a movie star in Los Angeles. “Goodbye Public Life” his piece is called.
Before it’s over, he has: called Andrew Sullivan and Anderson Cooper “the gay Department of Justice”; sneered that Shia LaBeouf “seems to carry with him, to put it mildly, a jailhouse mentality wherever he goes”; condemned MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as being “neither eloquent or funny”; and called Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” sidekick Mika Brzezinski “the Margaret Dumont of cable news.”
It’s Baldwin’s swan song as a public figure, he says, claiming that from now on he’ll be happy as a family man and actor. It would all be merely rambunctious entertaining if he didn’t also have trenchant things to say. For instance:
“The U.S. … is so preposterously judgmental now. The heart, the arteries of the country, are now clogged with hate. The fuel of American political life is hatred. … It’s all about hate. Hate Incorporated. … People are angry that in the game of musical chairs that is the U.S. economy, there are less seats at the table when the music stops. And at every recession, the music is stopping.”
A better editor might have quietly changed that “less” to the correct word “fewer,” but it’s hard for me not to regret the disappearance of such a wild, intemperate figure from both public life and big-mouth media prominence.
If, for instance, you watch MSNBC’s newest bright idea – Ronan Farrow daily at 1 p.m. – you discover a host who jokes that he hopes to live up to such broadcast news greats as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Stephen Colbert. When I tuned in to his Thursday show, I found him worrying about such matters as whether Miley Cyrus exploits little people in her act. I also found him introducing Pete Williams’ report on Attorney General Eric Holder’s sudden hospitalization by saying, “Peter, I’m a big fan of your work” (a crashing irrelevance when talking about suddenly hospitalized Cabinet members).
Then came the day’s MSNBC pursuit of Gov. Chris Christie and that endlessly flayed horse, Bridgegate. “What if anything, do we have that’s new here,” asked Farrow of the MSNBC reporter next to him. Nothing, was pretty much the answer.
I checked out forever, wishing the son of Mia Farrow and a sperm donor to be named later (Woody Allen? Frank Sinatra, as Mia has hinted and Farrow’s face seems to indicate) all the best as long as I never have to watch.
Not much more inviting, I must say, is Seth Meyers, whose debut in the time slot after Jimmy Fallon’s hit (so far) “Tonight Show” is, predictably, five times better written than Fallon’s show but otherwise has one of the oddest problems I’ve ever encountered on a late night talk show.
To wit, Meyers has a tendency to yell his lines at the audience and even his guests, rather than simply say them. He sounds a bit like Garrett Morris on the original “Saturday Night Live” decades ago pretending to interpret Chevy Chase’s “Weekend Updates” for the hearing impaired by turning his hands into a megaphone and shouting through them “OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT!!”
It stands to reason that Meyers, as the former head writer for SNL, would have much better written material than most other people. But unless he stops shouting at us at home and smirking insufferably nonstop throughout his entire show, I’ll spend my time wondering what might have been if someone had given us “The Alec Baldwin/Piers Morgan Show.”
Score one more misfire, so far, from Lorne Michaels as NBC’s now-ruling late night comedy czar.